Migration: Life on the move

Sonia Shah’s recently published book, The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move, takes a deep dive into the past to trace the ancient history of migrating life on Earth. For as long as life has existed on Earth, life has been on the move, as needed to survive the constantly changing environment in which all plants and animals live.

1 Homo sapiens
2 Neanderthals
3 Homo erectus

Shah’s is an ambitious attempt to tell this story, not confined to human migration, but encompassing plants and animals as well because all of these migrations are connected. Scientists speculate the earliest migrations of human ancestors, some 100,000 years ago out of Africa, were in pursuit of the migrating animals that humans hunted.  On balance, the movements of plants and animals are beneficial to life on Earth because they are necessary to survive. When they aren’t beneficial, the problems are usually short-lived and humans are usually unable to stop them because nature is more powerful than we are.

Click on map for animated movement of animals in response to changing climate conditions.

Migrations are even more frequent at a time of rapid and extreme climate change. As crops fail in the withering heat and drought caused by global warming, farmers are abandoning their farms to find the food they need to survive. Hence, Shah’s prediction that we are about to witness the “next great migration” because of the challenges of climate change. When the climate changes, the vegetation changes. When the vegetation changes, animals must move to find the food they need. Humans wish to put ourselves in a special category that denies our kinship with animals. But we are as dependent upon our food as any animal and the changing climate will challenge our existence as much as other forms of life.

Shah also traces the brief history of human knowledge of migrations about which little was known before the development of the scientific tools to study it.  Paleontology could dig up fossils that would raise more questions than answers about the residents of deep time, but it wasn’t until the development of molecular analysis that fossils could inform scientists of the evolutionary history of and close relationships among plants and animals that reflect migrations in the distant past.  New technology is capable of tracing the movements of animals that were unknown in the distant past, when animals seemed to mysteriously disappear at the end of one season and returned at the beginning of another season.

Invasion Biology is based on ignorance of migration

The fact that animal migration was largely unknown led to some fundamental misunderstandings about nature, including the unfortunate rise of nativism in the natural world that was spawned by the mistaken hypotheses of invasion biology. Shah explained the consequences of inadequate knowledge of migration in a recently published article in New York Times Magazine:

“When scientists considered movements across barriers and borders, they characterized them as disruptive and outside the norm, even in the absence of direct evidence of either the movements themselves or the negative consequences they purportedly triggered…Influential subdisciplines of biological inquiry focused on the negative impact of long-distance translocations of wild species, presuming that the most significant of these occurred not through the agency of animals on the move but when human trade and travel inadvertently deposited creatures into novel places.  The result, experts in invasion biology and restoration biology said, could be so catastrophic for already-resident species that the interlopers should be repelled or, if already present, eradicated, even before they could cause any detectable damage.”

In turn, Invasion Biology spawned pointless and destructive eradication projects

Conservation Sense and Nonsense has followed the destructive and futile attempts to eradicate plants and animals that nativists say “don’t belong here:”

  • Hawaii is an extreme case of attempts to eradicate non-native plants and animals: frogs, owls, egrets, seals, fruit trees, mangroves, parrots, etc.  These eradication projects often do more harm than good.  The “logic” for these projects is muddled, partly because the Hawaiian Islands emerged from the sea as barren volcanoes.  The question of “what belongs there” is a matter of opinion and debate in Hawaii and elsewhere.
Bird migration routes

Migration enables survival

I hope that improved knowledge of migration will help people understand that migration is a natural phenomenon that is essential to the survival of all life on Earth.  Migration enables life to adapt to changes in the environment, facilitating evolution and reducing frequency of extinction.